By Mark Guarino
Rock operas and concept albums are the troubled twins of rock. Rarely are they cohesive from start to finish and what’s more, they often fail to make an impact live.
Not necessarily so with “Greendale,” the ambitious new project from Neil Young that is an album, a live show and — released next week — an independent film. At 58, Young is at an age where most of his peers have cashed in their legacies to become an act, rather than continuing as artists. Even with its faults, “Greendale” shows Young is as restless as he ever was, still committed to challenging himself and his audience in the spirit of celebrating change over complacency.
The tour arrived at the Rosemont Theatre Thursday, the first of two nights. The three-hour show — which included an encore hour of old songs — was the finest synergy of rock music and theatre of recent memory. Parts “Prairie Home Companion,” “Our Town” and high school musical, the show encapsulated the many intertwined levels of anxiety most Americans living in small towns have dealt with since Sept. 11.
Rather than tell a linear story, Young introduced characters between songs in a role similar to the Stage Manager in “Our Town.” Almost 40 cast members and dancers provided the visuals, re-enacting the ten songs Young and his time-honed band Crazy Horse played. Things happened, but their significance and inter-connections were for you to make. A police officer gets shot. His widow mourns. A high school student rallies for the environment. The Devil dances. Corporate suits shake their fists. Images of John Ashcroft and Tom Ridge flash onscreen in the role of Big Brother. The town’s elderly monarch gets assaulted by the media. Clear Channel — Young’s tour promoter and the nation’s biggest conglomerate of radio stations, billboard advertising and concert venues — lurks on the town’s outskirts.
“The whole story falls apart if you don’t follow it — or if you do follow it, I don’t know,” he cracked wise at one point.
The production was decidedly ragtag — the acting (associates and family members of Young and crew) and sets were directed and designed as if cued from a children’s storybook. Likewise, the music was not fussy. Young and the Horse cranked crunchy blues riffs with few variations. He and drummer Ralph Molina harmonized in soul music falsetto. Young crammed in closely with his band to reinforce the music’s physicality but on one song sat alone playing an acoustic guitar that emitted such creaky groans, it sounded as if rigged with ancient strings.
Taken in parts, “Greendale” had a charm, but when it came together, its mess had potency. The unwieldy production illustrated the disconnect running straight through Young’s fictional town and the nation clawing at its borders. Something was underfoot and it was dangerous, it was saying. During the show’s finale — a feel-good environmental plea (“Be the Rain”) — over 40 people danced in the guise of townspeople in every racial makeup and age. At one point, an American flag was hoisted upwards with rebel pride, a popular gesture these days for sure, but one that felt a little more rooted to the soil.